Wow! Not gonna lie, I didn't see this one coming!
Just yesterday I admitted I was still a mixed bag of emotions with regard to Bountygate. That was mostly because I was operating under the assumption that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue would simply act as Goodell's puppet and uphold all of his initial sanctions.
Boy was I wrong. Instead Tagliabue called his own version of "Ambush" and vacated the suspensions of all four players involved. He weighed the evidence without prejudice. And in the process, a light was shined on Roger Goodell.
I'm no longer emotionally confused. I know exactly how I feel and at whom to direct my anger for this entire bounty bazaar. First, at the Saints coaching staff, for mishandling the situation. Honesty is always the best policy, they should have just owned up to it from the start and laid low for a little while. But in typical Sean Payton style, they got a little cocky.
But most of my anger is reserved for Roger Goodell. For his unilateral and unjust mismanagement of this entire situation. Using it as a platform to feign concern over player safety, while in the process permanently and wrongly tarnishing the good name of an entire organization and a few players.
I can be confident in this now. Message Board Guy™ has been hijacking every thread for the past nine months with his anti-Goodell rants. Other wise bloggers smelled a rat from the very beginning. Turns out, we should have been listening to them all along.
Because now we've got proof. We've been vindicated by Paul Tagliabue, a sweet, sweet angel of a man, and seen how the entire initial NFL investigation might have played out had a rational human being been in charge. Instead, according to Tagliabue's lengthy 22-page ruling, Goodell is a man attempting to change the entire culture of the league but going about it the completely wrong way.
While all the pundits now acknowledge that Goodell completely overstepped the bounds of his authority, most of the mainstream media is still being too courteous. They're not doing a good job of enumerating all the ways in which Goodell has acted like a tyrannical despot on a personal witch hunt to scapegoat an entire organization for the sins of the entire league.
So I'll have to do it myself.
In regard to Will Smith, here is what Tagliabue had to say in his ruling:
Although Commissioner Goodell found Smith's role as a defensive leader to be a basis, at least in part, for singling Smith out for discipline, this is inappropriate when most or all of the Saints' defensive unit committed the same or similar acts as those underpinning the discipline of Smith.
In addition, I am not aware of previous League discipline that similarly rested on whether or not a player was a team leader...
...Whatever the reason for such selective enforcement, it does not satisfy basic requirements for consistent treatment of player employees similarly situated. Therefore, I vacate the suspension of Will Smith.
In other words, Goodell singled out Will Smith and selectively punished him simply because of his status as a team leader, something never before done in the history of NFL sanctions. Smith is basically being used as a scapegoat to send a message to other players.
Here is how Tagliabue ruled on Anthony Hargrove's suspension:
As a further complication, it is unclear exactly what NFL investigators asked Hargrove regarding the Program or any other alleged program and, thus, unclear whether he lied about the Program or the fact that it included cart-offs and knockouts...
...I have concluded that there is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate in these unique circumstances that Anthony Hargrove's alleged misconduct is deserving of a suspension.
In other words, Goodell had very little evidence, if any, but decided to punish Hargrove anyway. Proof positive the commissioner is a doctrinaire.
Tagliabue's ruling on Jonathan Vilma is longest and most elaborate, but here are the key parts:
It is essential to recognize that Vilma is being most severely disciplined for "talk" or speech at a team meeting on the evening before the Saints-Vikings game. He is not being punished for his performance on the field...No Saints' player was suspended for on-field play by the League after the game in question. If the League wishes to suspend a player for pre-game talk including"offers" to incentivize misconduct, it must start by imposing enhanced discipline for illegal hits that involve the kind of player misconduct that it desires to interdict...
...If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms, meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a rigorous standard that separated real threats or "bounties" from rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry that would lead nowhere...
...Adding to the complexity, there is little evidence of the tone of any talk about a bounty before the Vikings game. Was any bounty pledged serious? Was it inspirational only? Was it typical "trash talk" that occurs regularly before and during games? The parties presented no clear answers. No witness could confirm whether Vilma had any money in his hands as he spoke; no evidence was presented that $10,000 was available to him for purposes of paying a bounty or otherwise. There was no evidence that Vilma or anyone else paid any money to any player for any bounty-related hit on an opposing player in the Vikings game...
...I cannot, however, uphold a multi-game suspension where there is no evidence that a player's speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine.
In other words, Goodell shouldn't have punished Vilma simply for tough talk or exaggerated rhetoric before a game, particularly when it's obvious that talk never actually manifested itself on the field in the form of illegal hits or dangerous conduct. Nor is there much evidence that Vilma actually offered a bounty for Brett Favre during the Saints-Vikings NFC Championship Game. So here again we have Roger Goodell acting as tyrant and despite sufficient evidence.
Finally we have Tagliabue's ruling on Scott Fujita:
Given that it is undisputed that Fujita did not participate in the Program including cartoffs and knockouts, and that his participation in a "non-injury" pay-for-performance pool is typically subject only to club discipline, I find that his actions here were not conduct detrimental and vacate his suspension.
In other words, Goodell's suspension of Fujita was completely unwarranted and a complete overstepping of his bounds.
How can any of this be considered acceptable behavior by a professional sports commissioner?
Yet despite all that we know now, the real damage has already been done. Who are we kidding? Like Drew Brees tweeted yesterday, "Some things can never be taken back." Fans of other teams across the league will still wrongly view the Saints as scumbags out to injure. But those fans should be concerned. Because if Goodell could drag the Saints through all of this without just cause, there's no telling what stunt he could pull on any of their teams.
For the first time in this long, drawn out process, I really hope this isn't over.